Drive to get veterans access to medical marijuana hinges on House committee

WASHINGTON – A measure allowing veterans easier access to medical marijuana garnered bipartisan support in Congress last year and nearly became law. A vote Monday could be the end of the line this year in another attempt to pass it.

The House Rules Committee will decide Monday whether to allow Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., to offer an amendment to the Department of Veterans Affairs budget on the House floor. His “Veterans Equal Access” amendment would allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their veteran patients in states where the drug is legal. VA providers would also be able to complete veterans’ paperwork required by some states to purchase marijuana.

If the Rules Committee approves the amendment, Blumenauer will offer it up later next week when the House debates the VA appropriations bill. If the committee rejects it, the amendment will die before an opportunity for debate.

“All we’re trying to do is make conversations between veterans and their VA providers about all treatment options more accessible,” Blumenauer said in an emailed statement. “We have Republicans, Democrats, and veterans behind this effort. Our hope is that the Rules Committee will take note of the overwhelming bipartisan support for this amendment, show compassion for our veterans, and give us a vote.”

This marks Blumenauer’s fourth time trying to pass the legislation.

The amendment failed in the House in 2014 and 2015, but passed 233-189 last year. It was also approved in the Senate, with a vote of 89-8. But during negotiations, the measure was stripped out of the VA appropriations bill by a conference committee established to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions.

In 2016, the Veterans Equal Access amendment didn’t have to go through the Rules Committee. The additional step this year is mandatory for all amendments to the VA appropriations bill.

“We feel this should be a priority, given the support for it in the past,” said Nicole L’Esperance, communications director for Blumenauer.

The Veterans Equal Access amendment recently progressed in the Senate.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 24-7 on July 13 to include the amendment in that chamber’s VA appropriations bill. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., offered the amendment.

“To not enable an individual to have the conversation with their doctor about the pros and cons of this potential remedy is to take away a dialogue important to a veteran’s health,” Merkley said. “It’s important we pass this here and make sure it survives conference committee and goes to the president. Let’s take this opportunity to stand up for our soldiers.”

Daines’ and Merkley’s states are two of the 29 in the country that permit some form of cannabis use. Daines said the restrictions on the VA from discussing marijuana were a “violation of veterans’ rights to talk openly and freely with their doctor.”

“When a veteran in Montana walks into a VA facility, they can’t discuss all the options available to them, but they can discuss them at the non-VA facility next door,” Daines said.

More veterans are rallying behind marijuana as a potential treatment for service-connected health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain, and they see it as an alternative to addictive opioids.

The American Legion, which has a membership of 2.2 million veterans, decided last August that it would advocate to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule I drugs, which, along with heroin, LSD and Ecstasy, are designated as having no medical use. Reclassifying marijuana would remove barriers for scientific research.

The American Legion is attempting to wield some of its political influence with Congress, the VA and President Donald Trump.

In May, VA Secretary David Shulkin said at the White House that he was open to looking at – and learning from – any evidence marijuana could be used to treat veterans.

“I believe everything that could help veterans should be debated by Congress and medical experts,” Shulkin said. “If there is compelling evidence that is helpful, I hope the people look at this and come up with a right decision, and we will implement that. There may be some evidence this is beginning to be helpful.”

Information from: Stars and Stripes



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